Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Price-Setting in English Borough Markets, 1349-1500

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Price-Setting in English Borough Markets, 1349-1500

Article excerpt

One of the most predictable features of urban life, at almost any time or place, is some form of regular market.(1) A recent study of markets and fairs in Roman Italy stresses their importance as a normal feature of Roman towns, and surmises that a large portion of the Roman food trades passed through them.(2) Anthropologists and development economists have viewed such institutions across the world in modern times. In a memorable chapter of his Tristes Tropiques, Levi-Strauss recalls the markets, fairs, and bazaars he has visited in India and South America, flies, crowds, and all. He goes on to describe the market place, from the ancient times onwards, as one of the foundations of civilization.(3) Amongst economic historians, at least, this ubiquity has fostered the idea that "price-setting" is a fundamental and unproblematic concept. This complacency is further encouraged by the close dependence of economic history upon economic theory, which often generates a false confidence in the adequacy of predictive models for understanding the workings of economic institutions. Price-formation through the intersection of supply and demand schedules is, of course, an essential tool of economic analysis, but the analysis is designed to explain why prices change rather than to demonstrate how in fact they are set or changed in any given market context. In their standard forths, such models are compatible with a wide range of institutional variation since they are highly abstract representations of the markets that the historian or the anthropologist might observe.(4) The historical characteristics of markets have to be added to the models rather than deduced from them. This paper sets out not to question the predictive power of the models used by economists but to discover something specific about how medieval markets really worked. The markets to be discussed were particular institutions in which participants regularly engaged in price-setting practices of which they themselves could have formulated a description, had they been asked.

The existence of a dense network of urban and rural markets in England in the mid fourteenth century meant that there were many points at which local prices might be determined, and so (presumably) contributed to the reliability of marketing as system of distribution. Richard Cantillon, writing about the conditions of trade in the early eighteenth century, supposed that it would be almost impossible to establish prices in the course of trade between merchants and villagers without formal market places, and that it was only there that prices were fixed according to the interaction of demand and supply conditions.(5) Perhaps the whole population stood to benefit from an institution whose primary effect was to reduce transaction costs, improve market information, and set competitive prices, especially if it is possible to demonstrate that markets were policed in such a way as to reduce fraud and eliminate monopoly practices. If markets were the one medieval institution that was organized and policed solely for the universal public good, this would be such a remarkable anomaly that we should hope for exceptionally close observation of what went on there to supply some contrast with all those other institutions in which people of high status and wealth were able to get the best deal. However, in current historical literature trading in public markets is almost as much hidden trade as trading in inns, taverns, and private houses.(6) Though there have been numerous distinguished discussions of different aspects of the regulation of markets and trade in England in accordance with the economic principles of the Middle Ages, none of these takes price-setting and its implications for the distribution of goods as a central issue. There is here a large area of social convention that has been little explored, but whose details must illuminate the politically dominant social values of the later Middle Ages and the social conflicts through which they were asserted and opposed. …

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